Demand for ST status by Meiteis and illegal migrants from Myanmar as reasons behind conflict in Manipur

Oinam Nabakishore Singh, IAS (Retd)
Since the violence erupted on the 3rd May, 2023 in Manipur, different reasons have been cited by many important people in positions of authority, civil society organizations, media, academics, and individuals. Since the Tribal Solidarity March spearheaded by All Tribal Students Union (ATSUM) in hill districts of Manipur on the 3rd May, 2023 against the orders of Manipur High Court of 27th March, 2023 directing State respondent, Manipur to send recommendations to the Union Government for inclusion of Meitei community in the list of Scheduled Tribes in the country was followed by violence, many including Union Home Minister, Shri Amit Shah attributed the violence to the orders and judgment of Manipur High Court referred here to be the cause of the violence.
There were protests, marches sponsored by ATSUM on the 3rd May, 2023 in all hill district headquarters including those inhabited by people of Naga tribes, which ended peacefully without any incident. One may be prompted to ask a question as to why there was different reactions from two broad groups of tribes, namely, Kuki-Zo and Nagas, to the demand for inclusion of Meitei in the list of Scheduled Tribes for Meitei ? Prima facie, both the communities are vehemently against the demand by Meiteis. One may be led to jump to a conclusion that demand for ST status by Meitei may not be the sole reason behind the violence; rather it could have provided the spark to the simmering discontent for altogether different causes. It may be preposterous to ascribe the Tribal Solidarity March to be causes of the violence. In fact, the march had ended peacefully in Churachandpur, Kangpokpi, Moreh well before the arson started there in the evening around 5.
Before brushing aside the proposal of inclusion of Meiteis in ST list as relevant to the present crisis, it may be worthwhile to ponder over the perceptions with respect to demand by Meiteis, of those already included in the list of ST in Manipur. Under the policy of the Government of India, 7.5% of the jobs in the Ministries, Departments, any Organization of the Government including Central Public Sector undertakings, armed forces, Nationalized banks, authorities, etc. are reserved for those belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. Similarly, same reservation is made in educational institutions of the Union Government including medical colleges, engineering colleges, management institutes, Central universities, Kendriya Vidyalaya, Navodaya Vidyalaya, etc. in admissions across classes and streams of subjects. Having seen Meteis from close quarters as being educationally and socially more advanced, tribals in Manipur see a threat to the privileges they have been enjoying for ages. It is quite natural to see the reactions to the demand of Meiteis for inclusion in ST list.
Land is a source of conflict among tribes in Africa and other continents, where agriculture is the main source of livelihood and sustenance. The same is true for Manipur. The traditional rights enjoyed by the Chiefs and tribals over land in the hill areas of Manipur are seen to be under threat by the proposed inclusion of Meiteis in ST list. Perception among tribal populace could be that the exclusive rights enjoyed by them as tribals would be encroached upon by the new entrants, Meiteis. It is logical to conclude that there would be strong opposition to the proposal of inclusion of Meiteis in ST list. Further, power asymmetry between tribal and non-tribals in the Government structuture would make tribals insecure.
While it is conceivable and justified to harbor a strong resistance to the proposal among the people already in ST list, it is hard to digest a conclusion that the orders of Manipur High Court was the reason behind the eruption of violence. It appears that Union Home Minister was ill informed of the ground situation in Manipur, and he read in to the manifest media reports, which lie on the surface.
If the demand for ST status and corresponding Tribal Solidarity March are not the sole reasons behind the violence, what could be the causes ? The oft-repeated explanation given first by Shri N Biren Singh, Chief Minister, Manipur is that illegal migrants from Myanmar are behind the present violence. He went to the extent of conspiracy among Chin-Kuki groups in Myanmar and Bangladesh to wage war against India. The same narrative was echoed by the Union Government. When the Chief Minister, Manipur is pressed for evidence, he mentions the name of Chairman of Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), who has entered into Suspension of Operation (SOO), agreement with Union and State Government of Manipur. It is reported that the said Chairman, Thanglianpau Guite, was once a Member of Parliament in Myanmar. Because of various factors like kinship, geographical contiguity of India and Myanmar having a common border, free migration from either side especially towards India, better economic opportunity in India, instability in Myanmar due to military rule, little or no restriction by the authorities on India side, encouragement by the politicians on Indian side, and easy mingling with local population because of similar ethnicity, there has been continuous flow of Chin-Zo-Kuki people from Myanmar to Manipur and Mizoram.
An effort was made by Manipur Government to identify illegal migrants from Myanmar by constituting a Cabinet Sub-Committee under the leadership of Tribal Affairs Minister, Shri Letpao Haokip at the beginning of 2023. The said committee identified about 2200 odd illegal migrants. The Government was planning to provide shelter for them at Singnnat. However, it is possible that many more illegal immigrants had come to Manipur and settled in various parts mainly in Tengnoupal, Churanchand-pur and Kangpokpi districts over the last few decades with permission from the local chiefs of the villages.
This assumption may be indirectly supported by the abnormal increase of about 1000 odd new villages, which came up in the last few years as claimed by the Chief Minister, Manipur. However, this is subject to verification by physically tracing the origin of the villages. It may be good to keep in mind that there is tradition of multiplication of villages among Kuki tribes as a tradition and for economic reasons. This could also contribute to the increase in their number of villages. While the size of Naga villages would go upto hundreds of houses, that of Kukis normally settle for twenties.
Why should illegal immigrants from Myanmar start the violence by burning houses of Meiteis in Churachandpur ? Will it be correct to assume and conclude that they would find a place to settle a place by driving away Meiteis from Manipur. Would they have so much of resources and audacity to arm themselves to indulge in burning of Meitei houses initially ? It is doubtful that illegal migrants would be so emboldened to resort to   burning of houses in a foreign land without the support of local population. Illegal migrants, who were forced to leave Myanmar on account of conflict between the military and Chin Defence Force or Peoples Defence Force in Myanmar, came to Manipur to save their own lives, it would be preposterous to say that they are responsible for the violence in Manipur.
It is possible that  they could have participated in the conflict by providing support in terms of manpower and tactical support. Prima facie, it is obvious that Union Government sings the same tune sung by Manipur Government. In case it is an external aggression, as implied in many statements, appropriate response is called for from the Union Government. Such diversionary statements are nothing short of diversionary tactics. It is true that Meiteis in general are against the illegal entry of Myanmar Nationals, there was no strong protest for their deportation. They are   quite tolerant towards the illegal migrants, who would be sent back to their country when normalcy returns. However, in case of those who enter Manipur with intention to permanently settle in Manipur, Meiteis will always ask for identification and deportation of such migrants. Here, the attitude and response of Kuki-Zo people in Manipur and Mizoram are contrastingly different from those of Meiteis.
If the State Government sincerely identifies illegal migrants and segregate them in relief camps under the vigil of State machinery by providing distinct identity cards and collecting biometric data, the problem of illegal migrants is manageable. I am inclined to conclude that a few thousands of illegal migrants could not be the reason behind the present conflict as claimed by the Government of Manipur.